Follow TV Tropes


Film / Judgment at Nuremberg

Go To

Judgment at Nuremberg is a 1961 Law Procedural which claims to be Based on a True Story, directed by Stanley Kramer, written (originally as an episode of Playhouse 90) by Abby Mann, and with an All-Star Cast featuring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Montgomery Clift, and Judy Garland.

The movie presents a fictionalized version of the "Judges' Trial" from the Anglo-American-Franco-Soviet International Military Tribunal (IMT) trials that took place at the German city of Nürnberg/Nuremberg in 1947. In this trial, the IMT tried the fourteen defendants on charges of:

  • Participating in a common plan or conspiracy to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity.
  • War crimes through the abuse of the judicial and penal process, resulting in mass murder, torture, and plunder of private property.
  • Advertisement:
  • Crimes against humanity on the same grounds, including slave labor charges.
  • Membership in a Criminal Organization, whether the Nazi Party or SS.

In the fictional version presented in the film, a panel of three U.S. judges, led by Chief Judge Dan Haywood (Tracy), must decide the fate of four German judges — among them Ernst Janning (Lancaster) — who are merely accused of "collaborating with the Nazis". Robert G. Moeller has recently (2013) argued that the characters and story were crafted to draw the greatest possible attention to the racially-divided, oppressive 'Jim Crow' policies of the USA itself at the time of its release (1961) by comparing and contrasting Nazi-German and American policies and values. The message is of course that the USA's value-differences are being betrayed by similar policies.


A pre-stardom William Shatner, still five years away from getting a gig on Star Trek, appears as an American officer who is a liaison with Judge Haywood.

This film contains examples of:

  • All Germans Are Nazis: Aside from the Jews, naturally, the film implies that (if not outright Nazis themselves) most German people at least went along with them. The defendants and others unconvincingly try to claim differently, though a couple notable exceptions are presented in Rudolph Peterson (a man from a Communist family who's likely mentally disabled who was forcibly sterilized — he says for their political beliefs) and Irene Hoffmann-Wallner (whose Jewish friend was accused of "racial defilement" as a result of supposedly having sex with her — she'd then been sent to prison for perjury over testifying that he did no such thing) as victims of defendants. Irene's husband is also portrayed as sympathetic towards her desire to testify (although worried that it will bring about repercussions against them).
  • Amoral Attorney: Rolfe. He has lots of Jerkass Has a Point moments about the hypocrisy of the Allies, but he is fully aware of the guilt of his clients and determined to get them acquitted more out of a sense of nationalism than a desire of justice, while bullying the witnesses in ways that even his clients disapprove of.
  • Armor-Piercing Response:
    • The last line of dialogue in the movie, after Haywood visits Janning's cell, and Janning tries to justify himself and practically begs Haywood for a measure of forgiveness.
      Janning: Those people, those millions of people. I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it.
      Haywood: (with sorrow) Herr Janning... it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.
    • Another example came earlier in the film when Haywood was talking to the old German couple who worked at his house. They said they didn't know what Hitler was doing to the Jewish population, then asked "Even if we did know, what could we have done?" To which Haywood responds, "You said you didn't know." The old couple realized that Haywood saw through their protestations, and it was clear that they were lying to themselves about not knowing, and were fully aware of the atrocities.
  • Artistic License – History: Mrs. Bertholt's husband is said to have been executed as part of the Malmedy trial. All the accused in that trial received clemency, and were released inside of a decade (many weren't even sentenced to death at all). They were also all SS men on trial, while her husband is said to have been regular army.
  • Big "SHUT UP!": Janning does this to Rolfe as he's badgering Irene Hoffman on the stand.
  • Bookends: The same Nazi marching song opens and closes the film.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point:
    • After the prosecution shows the extent of the Nazi regime's atrocities in court, the most bigoted and remorseless of the four defendants said "How dare they. We are judges, not executioners.", ignoring the fact that executioners execute people that judges like him have sentenced to death.
    • The judge then turns to another prisoner, one of Eichmann's deputies, and asks how such things could be possible. The prisoner delivers a totally emotionless and detached lecture on the technical and logistical requirements for mass killings.
    • When an American reporter talks about how people don't care about the war anymore and see it as old news, Haywood says that the war was only two years ago, to which the reporter unabashedly says "that's right".
  • Easily Forgiven: One of the main thrusts of the film is that Germany and the German people were being a little too easily forgiven, as the democratic West was forging ties with West Germany, then the front line in the Cold War.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Janning states that one of the great injustices of the case is that he is being grouped in with his co-defendant Emil Hahn, a Nazi true believer (as opposed to the My Country, Right or Wrong attitude of Janning himself). When Hahn tries to talk to him in the prison yard about how the Americans will go easy on them so they can ally with the Germans against the Soviet Union, Janning is disgusted that Hahn even feels justified in talking to him.
  • Groin Attack: A man testifies how he was forcibly sterilized on the grounds of alleged mental disability under the Nazi eugenics laws (partly in retaliation for him and his relatives fighting the Nazis, as they were Communists). Then it's uncomfortably noted how such laws were based on American laws of the time, ones upheld by the US Supreme Court.
  • Hanging Judge: Janning plays with this. Initially, he was regarded as fair-minded, thus a Jewish defendant in a trial he presided over felt hope at him being the judge. However, Janning convicted and sentenced the defendant to death — he was executed. Later, he admits that he'd become this by then, and would have convicted the Jewish man no matter what evidence there was.
  • Head-in-the-Sand Management: Rolfe's thesis in his closing statement, in which he said that Germany and the Germans aren't the only ones to blame. The industrialists who sold arms to Hitler, the diplomats who made an agreement with him at Munich, the pope who signed an agreement with him, all share blame.
  • Heroic BSoD: Col. Lawson, after Rolfe destroys Rudolph Peterson on the stand.
  • Hypocrite: The defendants' lawyer Rolfe repeatedly accuses the American authorities of this, explicitly and otherwise. In the case of a man supposedly sterilized for being a Communist, Rolfe shows that he probably is mentally disabled (the Nazis passed a law to sterilize them), although political retaliation likely played a role too. He had earlier noted their sterilization law was based on the American one, subtly asking "How do you condemn something which your country does too?" These laws were still on the books in the US, too, when the film was released. After the film on the Holocaust, he also claims it's hypocritical that Americans condemned this when talking with Janning in relation to the atomic bombings of Japan.
  • Just Following Orders: Rolfe's defense of the judges amounts to this. "A judge does not make the laws; he carries out the laws of his country."
  • Law Procedural: Concerning the development of new law for prosecution of crimes against humanity.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Brought up in the film is the (genuine) fact that relations between Germans and Africans, and Germans and Jews, were criminalized as the act of "Miscegenation" in the 1935 Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor (Nuremberg Laws). The term, and laws, were derived from contemporary US state laws which were still in effect when the film was released. Janning sentenced a Jew to death under this law for alleged sex with an "Aryan" German woman.
  • Match Cut: A cut from Mrs. Bertholt pouring Dan a cup of coffee to Col. Lawson doing the same in his office.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Leads to a Not So Different argument, and Janning's Heel Realization.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Janning is the only defendant who voices remorse, or admits his guilt. Only his final conversation with Judge Heywood seemed to really make this sink in. Even then, Janning maintains he didn't know it would come to that, before Heywood says they had the moment he sentenced to death a man who he'd known was really innocent.
    • Lampe also seems to regret his acts, but doesn't say anything.
  • Not So Different:
    • A standard argument employed by German nationalists and sympathizers throughout the trials. This is part of Rolfe's argument when trying to defend his clients on the charges of their authorizing eugenic sterilization, asking one of the accused if he can identify a judicial opinion upholding a law allowing this before he reveals it was handed down by the US Supreme Court (this was Truth in Television, unfortunately).
    • There is a point about the "My country, right or wrong" doctrine which is proclaimed by nationalists, both German and American.
    • When Lawson testifies about hangings of children in concentration camps, the camera cuts to a close up of a stone-faced African-American MP, drawing an implicit parallel with lynchings.
    • When speaking with Janning, Rolfe brings up the atomic bombings of Japan after Lawson played a film on the Holocaust.
  • Orbital Shot: Kramer was nervous about his long courtroom examination scenes coming across as boring on the screen. So he filled the movie with swooping, circling camera movement in and around the characters. The most extreme example of this, and the most famous shot in the movie, is the scene where the camera does a complete 360-degree orbit around Col. Lawson during his opening statement.
  • Politically Correct History: In-Universe, you can see the beginnings of the Clean Wehrmacht myth taking shape, and the narrative that Nazi atrocities were the work of a small group of fanatics is being used by the German people and the Americans to absolve the silent majority of their guilt.
    Col. Lawson: There are no Nazis in Germany, didn't you know that Judge? The Eskimos invaded Germany and took over, that's how all those terrible things happened. It wasn't the fault of the Germans, it was the fault of those damn Eskimos.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Rolfe tries to argue that the German judges, especially Janning, were this. Naturally, Lawson doesn't agree.
  • Rank Up: Emil Hahn was a former prosecutor early in the Nazi regime but eventually became a judge.
  • Scenery Gorn: The film opens with Judge Haywood being driven through the streets of a bombed-out Nuremberg. His first line is "I didn't know it was so bad."
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Colonel Lawson was clearly affected by his experiences liberating concentration camps, and his zealousness prosecuting Nazis is likely inspired by the horrors he witnessed.
  • Slowly Slipping Into Evil: Janning describes himself and other Germans who had gone along with the Nazis as essentially this, doing increasingly worse things in the name of patriotism until they had unleashed the Holocaust. It's mentioned that he helped found the Weimar Republic, but eventually ended up helping the Nazis, whose regime destroyed not only the Republic, but everything it stood for.
  • Tragic Villain: The concept itself is a major plot point, as it explores how the German people could be complicit in the Holocaust. Hans Rolfe argues that Ernst Janning, a once respectable jurist and legal expert, committed the crimes he did out of a sense of duty to a system that encouraged it. Judge Haywood does agree with Rolfe to a point — Janning was a tragic figure. But his defeat does not excuse him from the crimes against humanity he committed. The tragedy is that a respectable human being can be easily manipulated into committing atrocities.
  • Translation Convention: All of the German characters speak German at the beginning of the trial, with translation provided (and the judges and attorneys wearing headsets), until Kramer cuts to a close-up of Rolfe speaking. As he pulls back the camera, Rolfe starts speaking English, and from then on, so do the other German characters. They still act like they're speaking in different languages, using the translation headsets and such, which makes for some odd moments.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Well, there was a judges' trial, but every character and every detail of the trial process is fictional. Ernst Janning is a composite of three different judges who were tried. Also, the real Judges' Trial took place in 1947, but the film moves it to 1948 so that it can happen against the backdrop of the communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin Blockade, to explain why US authorities will go easy on the defendants — support from the Germans is needed.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: